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Monday, June 3, 2013

A Complaint About "Nothing" (and Genetically Modified Crops)

Posted by on Mon, Jun 3, 2013 at 11:00 AM

A letter to the editor, from reader Deanna:

I think it's a shame that on your most recent Last Days column, last Saturday the 25th "nothing happened today." Actually, two million people took to the streets to address a huge global issue: Monsanto and their GMO crops are poisoning our food supply. I think it should have been mentioned. We need as many people becoming educated and joining the fight as possible.

To be fair, Last Days' "nothing happened today" was followed by "unless you count the heavy rains that triggered flash floods that killed two women in San Antonio, Texas, or the school bus explosion that killed 17 children in Pakistan, or the revelation that US television personality Jimmy Kimmel spent $1.9 million on a nude painting of Bea Arthur, which he then gave as a gift to friend and fellow comedian Jeffrey Ross." But Deanna's right: It was also a day marked by huge protests against genetically modified food (and actress Octavia Spencer's birthday!)


Comments (30) RSS

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MacCrocodile 1
"Educated" in this sense meaning "reactionary and ill-informed".
Posted by MacCrocodile on June 3, 2013 at 11:05 AM · Report this
TomJohnsonJr 2
We all wish we were younger, but for Octavia Spencer to lead huge protests against her birthday seems a bit extreme.
Posted by TomJohnsonJr on June 3, 2013 at 11:17 AM · Report this
Monsanto is a greedy, evil business sure; but "nothing" is exactly how much truth there is to "GMO crops are poisoning our food supply".
Posted by algorhythm99 on June 3, 2013 at 11:27 AM · Report this
undead ayn rand 4
@1: Pretty much.Lumping all GM food together from the get-go and conflating Monsanto with all aspects of the international food supply caused that movement to be stillborn and otherwise sympathetic liberals just can't deal with the rhetoric.I'll leave the bipartisan loonies to take up that banner.

For a little nuance, these are the sorts of articles that make me feel and think. Not the ones that assume you're deathly afraid of "FRANKENFOOD!!!!!!!!"…

"Q: I read that the new farm bill is going to establish a checkoff program for organics. What’s that? Is this good for organics?

A: As with everything in food politics, the answer depends on who you are. If you are a big producer of organic foods, it’s good news. If you are small, it may cost you more than it’s worth. And if all you want is to buy organic foods at a price you can afford, it could go either way.

Let’s start with the farm bill, which still has many hurdles to jump before it gets passed. The bill ties agricultural policy to food stamps (which take up 80 percent of the budget), favors large industrial farms over small, and only occasionally tosses in a token program to promote public health or environmental protection.

One such token is the organic checkoff. Both the Senate and House have amended the farm bill to permit organic producers and handlers to form a marketing and promotion program, commonly known as a checkoff.

Fee required

The way this works is that if the amendments survive, the bill passes and organic growers agree on the program – all iffy at the moment – the Department of Agriculture will require every producer and handler of certified organic foods to pay a fee per unit sale (the checkoff). The fees go into a common fund to be used for research and marketing of organic foods in general.

The USDA currently administers 19 checkoff programs. The best known are beef (“it’s what’s for dinner”), milk (“got milk?”) and eggs (“the incredible edible”). Others cover foods such as blueberries, Hass avocados, mangos, peanuts, popcorn and watermelon.

In these cases, the industry or its representatives voted for the programs. They are administered by the USDA but the industry pays for them.

Checkoff funds are allowed to be used for advertising, consumer education, foreign market development and research. They cannot be used for lobbying, although the distinction between promoting a product to consumers and extolling its virtues to lawmakers can be subtle.

The Organic Trade Association, which represents hundreds of organic producers but is dominated by the big ones, has lobbied for this program since 2010. The association is concerned that consumers cannot currently tell the difference between “natural,” a term that is unregulated, and “certified organic,” which is highly regulated, requires inspection and is more expensive to produce.

Mostly, the association wants to increase market share. Sales of organic foods in the United States have been growing by about 10 percent annually and reached $35 billion last year, but this amount is minuscule in comparison to total food sales. The growth potential of organic foods is enormous.

The congressional go-ahead is a triumph for the association, which convinced a majority of the Senate and House that the public wants the farm bill to support organics.

Opposing viewpoint

That many producers of conventional foods and their friends in Congress do not like organics is an understatement. They resent that consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organics. They consider organics to be a slap in the face – a personal assault on conventional agricultural practices.

They cite many reasons why the organic checkoff should not be allowed. For one thing, it is distinctly different from all other commodity checkoff programs – “organic” is a production process, not a food.

Because farmers are allowed to pay fees into only one checkoff program, the growers of organic blueberries would have to choose between the one for organics and the one for blueberries.

Questioning the cost

Critics of the entire concept of checkoff programs say all they do is increase food prices by passing the costs of promotion on to consumers.

Small organic producers and handlers are also leery. They object to having to pay fees for something that is not guaranteed to do them any good. Evidence for the benefits of checkoff programs is mixed. Some farmers benefit, while others do not.

And because checkoff funds are not allowed to be used for advertising that implies disparagement of other foods or production processes, small organic producers fear that marketing will focus exclusively on whether or not a product is certified and will be used to promote any organic product, including junk food. The rules will not allow promotion to focus on the benefits of organics to health or the environment.

Checkoffs are about marketing. They are not about health, sustainability, human welfare or any other value cherished by today’s food movement. Much as I favor organic over conventional production methods, I’m hoping organic producers will think carefully before approving a checkoff."
Posted by undead ayn rand on June 3, 2013 at 11:28 AM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 5
I wonder if Deanna will volunteer to be one of the billions who would starve if we eliminated all genetic engineering from worldwide farming.

Something tells me no. She will leave that to a Chinese or African person, and continue living high off the hog here in America where we can afford organic, non-GMO food, while telling starving people what they should be allowed to eat.
Posted by Theodore Gorath on June 3, 2013 at 11:42 AM · Report this
Pick1 6
As Neil Degrasse Tyson said:

"Most who fear genetically altered food are unaware that nearly all food has been genetically altered via artificial selection"
Posted by Pick1 on June 3, 2013 at 11:56 AM · Report this
undead ayn rand 7
@5: Punishing people for being ignorant isn't really the best use of our energy. Children don't deserve to die from lack of vaccination, she doesn't deserve to starve because she worships "nature" as some sort of religion that operates independent of human influence and plant husbandry.
Posted by undead ayn rand on June 3, 2013 at 12:05 PM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 8
@7: I never said she deserved to die, only that she is pushing an ideology that, if it comes to fruition, will damn billions to starvation. So I feel if she wants to push that ideology, she should volunteer (in this hypothetical situation) to starve to death in place of a poor foreign person, who will actually feel the sting of her flawed, self-serving ideology.

Simply about taking responsibility, that is all.
Posted by Theodore Gorath on June 3, 2013 at 12:20 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 9
Geesh, you act like 2,000,000 people is more than 100 lining up for Macklemore.
Posted by Will in Seattle on June 3, 2013 at 12:29 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 10

I didn't realize humans throughout history have spliced eel genes into tomatoes.


Funny you should mention that since Monsanto's intellectual property protections combined with its efforts to push its products onto the third world will lead to only more poverty and starvation.
Posted by keshmeshi on June 3, 2013 at 12:41 PM · Report this
@10, that's nothing. Thanks to horizontal gene transfer, DNA has been migrating between completely unrelated organisms for the last four billion years.

I bet there's a lot about science you don't realize.

Posted by GermanSausage on June 3, 2013 at 1:05 PM · Report this
balderdash 12
Until we can get people to settle the fuck down and disentangle the two related but distinct issues of Monsanto and genetically modified foods, we're never going to be able to take effective action against the former or get genuinely good use out of the latter. Demonizing genetic modification creates a strong cultural disincentive for young, radical, intellectual types to get into the field academically or create start-ups that might actually force Monsanto to do something differently.

I mean, Monsanto already has pretty much the worst reputation a company can have. Why would they not keep doing what they're doing when everybody already hates them and they're raking in money essentially unchallenged? But nobody else wants anything to do with them, or their market sector, because somehow "No GMOs" is the rallying cry for anti-Monsanto activism.

Way to protect their monopoly, hippies. And of course, protecting their monopoly allows them a free hand in continuing to shape their sector's absolutely reprehensible regulatory environment and intellectual property law.

@10, have you ever seen teosinte? That shit is not recognizable as the ancestor of corn. For that matter, you do know what a tetraploid or hexaploid is? And aside from the shock factor, you don't present any reasonable case as to why splicing "eel genes" into tomatoes is necessarily a bad thing, why it's somehow worse than selecting for entirely random mutations in hopes of a useful result.
Posted by balderdash on June 3, 2013 at 1:09 PM · Report this
I seriously doubt Monsanto will be giving away the genetically modified seed to third world countries. More likely they will do the same thing there that they have done here - sue the heck out of anyone that saves seed contaminated with their special genes so that farmers have no choice but to buy all their seed from Monsanto.
You are equating splicing genes from different Kingdoms into plants, to hybridization?

@11: HGT is not anywhere close to the same thing. Sheesh.
Posted by been there and back again on June 3, 2013 at 1:12 PM · Report this
rob! 14
Re: 11, a decent short intro for non-scientists:…
Posted by rob! on June 3, 2013 at 1:17 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 15
@8: "Simply about taking responsibility, that is all."

"Personal responsibility" is for republicans and libertarians. Besides that just like the antivaxers, these people can punish the rest of the world with their stupidity. It's never just the idiots that suffer.
Posted by undead ayn rand on June 3, 2013 at 1:18 PM · Report this
I don't know about Keshmeshi, but I certainly know the difference between diploid, tetraploid or hexaploid is, since I have to pay attention to such things when hybridizing.

I am concerned about the long tern affects of BT genes spliced into corn affecting insects. I realize we have been killing off insect for quite a while using chemical insecticides. But once a gene such as BT is inserting into corn, that form of insecticide is going to be around pretty much forever. If we find it has serious ecological effects, we can't get rid of it.
Posted by been there and back again on June 3, 2013 at 1:20 PM · Report this
Progressives embracing overblown anti-GMO propaganda make me a sad panda. Monsanto has been a legal bully, and there may be room to demand more independent testing before marketing. But that doesn't change the fact that genetic engineering has made real progress in fighting malnutrition. Scary-sounding but ultimately meaningless soundbites about "eel genes in tomatoes" are poisoning the discussion.

Middle-class people looking to feel special can stick to buying exclusively organic. Much of the rest of the world just needs to find a way to grow enough food to eat. Let them, please.
Posted by Morosoph on June 3, 2013 at 1:21 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 18
@12: Yep. I'll keep voting down these fucking useless babble-fests of green-friendly marketing twaddle until someone decides to include a modicum of science with their fearmongering.

I'm fine with ecosystem control and specific health concerns, but these movements are never about specificity.
Posted by undead ayn rand on June 3, 2013 at 1:21 PM · Report this
Given how well corn pollen can travel, it may eventually be impossible to eat non-GMO "organic" corn.

I'm not particularly worried about eating the genes that are currently spliced into corn, but I do worry about the long term affects. There is already evidence that it is affecting more than just the targeted insect species.
Posted by been there and back again on June 3, 2013 at 1:27 PM · Report this
Pick1 20
@10 @13 Cross-species hybridization HAS been going on for billions of years. We would never be here if not for it. (Unless you believe creationism, in which case, I will just sigh and walk away)

I'm not trying to defend Monsanto's ethical practices, which are, indeed, horrid.

I'm just trying to say that the letter writer claiming that Monsanto is "poisoning" our food supply is reactionary and crazy. Saying all gene splicing is inherently bad for people and toxic is completely stupid.
Posted by Pick1 on June 3, 2013 at 1:30 PM · Report this
@13, horizontal gene transfer is the same thing. And indeed, that's how biologists figured out how to do it in the first place.

The one difference being that with GM technology you know what genes you're transferring, and with HGT it's a completely random crapshoot.
Posted by GermanSausage on June 3, 2013 at 1:49 PM · Report this
Catherwood 22
@21, sure: you know what genes you're transferring. What @19 is pointing out, correctly, is that you - we, Monsanto, everyone - don't know what the ecological consequences of the expression of that/those gene(s) will be.

Moreover, the relatively harmless "resistance to RoundUp[tm}" gene is not of itself an issue: what's potentially dangerous is the herbicide load that perforce gets dumped into the ecosystem (and yes, I know the active ingredients break down quickly, but the solvents are nasty stuff and they don't break down anything like as quickly). Installing the application of lots of poison as the default mode of agriculture seems to me to be a worrisome idea.
Posted by Catherwood on June 3, 2013 at 2:39 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 23
@22: "what's potentially dangerous is the herbicide load that perforce gets dumped into the ecosystem"

"Organic" farming can use toxic pesticides as well. If you're concerned about the load, ban it specifically instead of this all-encompassing zero-science grabfest.

"we, Monsanto, everyone - don't know what the ecological consequences of the expression of that/those gene(s) will be"

Is so nebulous and OMG WHAT HATH SCIENCE WROUGHT? that it's impossible for many of us to take seriously.
Posted by undead ayn rand on June 3, 2013 at 3:10 PM · Report this
Fnarf 24
The argument against GMO has nothing to do with health and everything to do with intellectual property.

Monsanto in particular must not be allowed to own the genetic code of organisms. To do so is unconscionable. When Farmer John manually crosses two varieties of corn, he doesn't get to say "hey, I've got the copyright on that new variety, so if you save your seeds and plant them again next year, you're committing a felony".
Posted by Fnarf on June 3, 2013 at 3:17 PM · Report this
@22, except with GM crops, you'd be dealing with a lot less herbicides and pesticides, because the the GM crops are a lot more resistant compared to the non-GM crops.

Now if you want to move the goalposts to organic vs. modern agriculture, fine, just don't be two-faced about it.
Posted by GermanSausage on June 3, 2013 at 3:20 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 26
@24: Sadly, none of these proposals have any interest in doing that.

@25: But those pesticides are TOXINS whereas organic pesticides cover bugs in a warm embrace of the all-father until they lie down and accept their fate in this great wheel of life.
Posted by undead ayn rand on June 3, 2013 at 3:23 PM · Report this
@24 - "The argument against GMO has nothing to do with health and everything to do with intellectual property."

No, it really doesn't. Read the post again, please. Why do we keep hearing scary stories of GMOs "poisoning" our food supply and ZOMG JELLYFISH GENES IN PLANTS THEY'RE TRYING TO KILL US ALL?

If this is about Monsanto being unethical in their marketing and business model, then everyone should stick to that argument, please. It's a fair one! But the argument that technology-aided genetic modification of plants is inherently bad - that's just ridiculous. And harmful.
Posted by Morosoph on June 3, 2013 at 3:47 PM · Report this
@26, I was arguing with some cro-magnon yesterday who was trying to convince other people (or maybe just himself) that gay marriage shouldn't be legal because homosexuality wasn't natural. When I told him that yes, homosexuality is natural, it occurs in animals all the time he suddenly switched the argument to "well just because animals do it, that doesn't make it normal."

Now here today I'm running into the argument "well GMOs shouldn't be legal, because nature never splices fish genes into strawberry genes." And I explain that nature does that sort of thing all the time. And suddenly the argument shifts, "well that's not what I'm talking about at all. It doens't make it right!"

And I can't help but think I'm arguing with essentially the same people. Yes, it's highly unlikely that these are two different individuals. But what difference does it make?
Posted by GermanSausage on June 3, 2013 at 4:22 PM · Report this
Rotten666 29
@28 You sir, win this thread.
Posted by Rotten666 on June 3, 2013 at 6:25 PM · Report this
These comments have restored my faith in the intellectual capacity of my community. I thought everyone had gone off the deep end of stupid with all this anti-GMO fuckery lately.
Posted by sugart on June 3, 2013 at 11:54 PM · Report this

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